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Are Standing Desks The Biggest Sham Ever?

Scientific evidence show that standing desks can adversely affect your body and cognitive abilities.

Are Standing Desks The Biggest Sham Ever?
[Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe/Getty Images]

Standing desks. Media and fans raved about them, even though little solid scientific evidence supports their alleged ergonomic and health benefits. In fact, many scientific studies show that they cause lower back pain and have other negative effects, like putting pressure on your skeletal and circulatory systems and increasing the risk of deep thrombosis and varicose veins. Now, a new research paper suggests standing desks have a negative effect on our cognitive abilities, too.

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A research team from Curtin University, in Perth, Western Australia, observed 20 subjects working for two hours on standing desks. The results–published in the journal Ergonomics–show negative impacts on both their bodies and their minds.

[Photo: endopack/iStock]

The subjects’ mental reactiveness dropped, which affected their ability to concentrate. On the positive side, the researchers found that the subjects’ creative problem solving abilities improved–but only marginally. Their overall conclusion is that “body discomfort was positively correlated with a [decreased] mental state.” This is the first study to detect these psychological effects. (It’s worth noting, though, that the sample size was quite small, so take the results with a grain of salt.)

[Photo: endopack/iStock]

As for the physical consequences: This study’s results mirrored those found in a meta-study of 20 previous research papers with 2,174 participants all across Europe and the United States, analyzed by the Cochrane Review–an international organization that examines scientific research papers focused on health. These studies found out that standing desks increase lower back pain. The Curtin University team also found out that the majority of participants reported increased general discomfort in all body areas.

[Photo: endopack/iStock]

Is the ability to marginally improve creative thinking worth the lower back and lower limb problems, the reduced attention, and the impact on your bones and circulation? Some research has found that standing desks help people burn more calories than sitting desks–but so can getting up from your desk and taking a walk. It’s become increasingly obvious that standing desks are more of a fad than a fix. As Nottingham University physiotherapy professor Alan Taylor told The Telegraph: “The bottom line is that this expansion has been driven more by commercial reasons than scientific evidence […] now the evidence is catching up.”

But, if science says that standing desks are so bad for you, why do the fans swear by them? My theory here is that they are like parents who tell everyone that having a kid is an amazingly wonderful experience. At the end, they are only trying to get you to make the same mistake so you can share their suffering.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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